The purpose of this study was to test the efficacy of a mobile application in increasing connectedness to nature and imparting ecological knowledge to children in a nonformal environmental education (NFEE) setting. The mobile application (Agents of Nature), available in various parks in Canada and the United States, highlights the flora, fauna, and ecology particular to each site. The application, designed to foster children's connection with the natural environment, is free to the public.
The efficacy of this mobile application was assessed in 747 children (age 9 – 14) in three different parks: a wetland, a prairie grassland, and an indoor tropical garden. Children visited one of the three parks and were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group used the mobile application and an iPad as they toured the park; one group toured with an environmental educator; and one group with a paper map.
Data were collected for each of the three groups at each park location. Children's connection to nature was measured using the Inclusion of Nature in Self scale before and after the tour. Other measures – focusing on children's experience of fun, their attitudes toward the parks, and park content knowledge – were conducted only after the tour. Level of fun was measured by asking children to circle their answer on a 5-point Likert-type scale that best indicated how much fun they had on the park walk. Children's environmental attitude, or attitude toward the park, was also assessed with a one-item measure asking them to respond on a 5-point Likert-type scale to the statement “Visiting the park today makes me want to take better care of this place.” Ten multiple-choice questions were used to assess park content knowledge.
Results showed that the mobile application was just as effective in connecting children to nature as the other two non-formal environmental education strategies (touring with an environmental educator and touring with a paper map). The mobile application, however, offered additional benefits, including more fun and increased social interaction. Additionally, there seemed to be no negative consequences, such as distraction.
From these findings, the researchers conclude that touring a park with a mobile application is as good as touring with a guide or touring alone. They also note how the use of a mobile application can allow children who do not have access to an environmentally informed adult to still engage with their local parks and increase their connection to nature.